‘For godssake Frank, what’s the rush?’
Her father didn’t react, just pressed the doorbell. Lana and her mother picked their way up the dark, icy driveway.
‘You just charge ahead. No thought for me!’ Her mom wobbled along, elbows out, placing her feet with care.
Lana followed, boots skidding sideways with each step. Her breath billowed white from her mouth and her lungs burned. Under the yellow porch light, her dad stood with arms crossed, his face like a wall. The door with its green and red wreath swung inwards.
‘Hi guys, come on in. Hi Lana.’ Mr Perron held the door wide and she hunched in after her parents.
‘Hello Mr Perron!’ The greeting squeaked from her mouth and her cheeks flared hot.
Her teacher’s husband closed the door, eyes crinkling above his beard. ‘Good to see you.’
Lana smiled back at him, ignoring the pinch of her woollen dress. Lately she was wider and all her clothes were tight. When she moved around, she bumped into things with her bottom and stomach. Her mother said it was puppy fat, that she was about to grow tall, but she knew it was plain old fat. The grade seven boys called her Lumpy Lana. She sucked in her belly as she passed her coat to Mr Perron.
‘Yvette’s still getting ready.’ He nodded towards the long hallway. ‘I’ll just put your things away. Head on through.’
Lana followed her parents to the living room, where candles flickered from the corners and a tinselled tree sat against one window. A bearskin rug lay on the thick brown carpet. Her mother perched on an armchair and her dad flopped onto a couch, one leg dangling. Music drifted from speakers, and her father sang along softly, ‘…Like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down.’
Lana eyed the potato chips on the coffee table, wondering if her mother would hiss if she ate some. Before she could decide, her dad rose to his feet.
‘Yvette! You’re looking lovely.’
Mrs Perron hustled in, slim and gorgeous in a long paisley dress. She hugged them all, trailing perfume, her eyelids sparkling like jewels. As her husband poured drinks, she laid a hand on Lana’s shoulder, her breath fierce and winey.
‘Let’s get this party started!’
She swept to the record player and swapped records, dropping the needle with a shrieking scrape. A different song began, pulsing and beating. Lana knew this one – it was always on the radio. The high voices crooned across the room – ‘Night fever, night fever. We know how to do it!‘ Mrs Perron began to dip her shoulders and shimmy her hips, her hair sliding over one eye. Lana backed away.
The doorbell rang and more teachers arrived, bringing wine and eggnog and cheeseballs on pottery plates. They stood in clusters, all talking at once. Lana dived to snatch a fistful of chips, eating them so fast her chest hurt.
When she was younger, she’d crawl under tables at these parties, watching all the shoes go past. Often she was the only child. She would fall asleep beneath tie-dyed tablecloths, then wake in the evening air as her father carried her to the car. Now she was too big to play under tables. She sat behind a sofa, knees bent close, picking at knobs of thread on her stockings.
‘Well, I joke about it but I’m not too worried. She’s always been a sturdy girl. Has the Baker appetite. And the Baker bottom!’ Her mother laughed, and there was light laughter from the other teachers. Lana’s eyes stung.
‘She’s fine how she is, though, don’t you think?’ Mr Perron piped up from a corner of the room. ‘And smart as hell.’
‘Well, sure. She’s just a little chunky.’
‘You know, Yvette says she’s really bright.’ He didn’t raise his voice and his tone was mild.
‘I know that.’ Her mother’s voice was brittle. ‘I never said she wasn’t.’
There was a brief hush before the kindy teacher leapt in, telling them how she’d gotten lost on her way.
Lana wriggled up from the beanbag. It was after midnight, but the party was still roaring. Music shook the walls and the house was overflowing. She ducked past teachers who might tug at her braids and make her waitress with trays of vol au vents. Her eyes were heavy and she planned to curl up with the jackets on the guest room bed. She wandered down the hall, scratching at the armpit of her dress.
The door was almost closed. She pushed and it swung slowly back on its hinge. Dim light seeped across Mrs Perron and the gym teacher, Mr Kondos, standing mashed together, mouths attached, arms grabbing and pulling.
Her father’s laugh drifted down from the crowded lounge room. She was afraid to breathe. Through the window, in the coloured glow of Christmas lights, snow fell like confetti. The bedroom was quiet, as if the carpet had soaked up all sound; even the kiss was silent. Lana edged away, her skirt whispering against her tights. Mr Kondos opened an eye. She thudded back towards the music, heart racing.
In the heat of the party, her father danced near the record player, the top buttons of his shirt undone, showing dark chest hair. He twisted and bumped with the kindergarten teacher, their faces gleaming. Now and then the music jumped as the needle skipped a groove.
Her mother sat enveloped by a couch, her green polyester pantlegs emerging like droopy stalks. She sipped her drink, nodding, as she listened to a bald man with a tie. Lana wondered what her mom thought of her father’s dancing, but she didn’t even glance his way.
Ducking under adults propped in doorways, Lana made her way to the kitchen and grabbed a slice of fruitcake from the platter. There was nothing else to do.
She was reaching for a third piece when Mr Perron strode from the direction of the bedrooms, his eyes fevered. He banged his half-filled glass on the benchtop, splashing the laminex.
‘Want to go skidooing?’
She stared. Surely he wouldn’t just leave the party?
‘You must be bored. And I could do with a breather. Check with your mom.’ He opened a cupboard near the back door and pulled out coats, snowpants, boots and gloves. ‘Here. You’re not much smaller than Yvette.’ He wasn’t staggering or slurring his words.
She felt a dart of fear, then a buzzing excitement.
She crept into the living room, slipping through the fog of smoke and sweat. On the couch beside the bald man, her mother lolled against the cushions. Her father twirled the kindergarten teacher, dipping her low and grinning as she squealed. No one spoke to Lana, or even looked at her. She waited a minute, then hurried back. ‘Mom says it’s fine.’
She pulled on the jacket and pants and stepped into boots. Mr Perron wrote a note and fixed it to the counter with a bottle: Gone skidooing. She wrapped a scarf around her neck, and put on gloves and a knit cap. Neither of them suggested she get her own things from the bedroom.
Though the snow had stopped, the night air was bitter, blowing under Lana’s scarf, slicing at her neck. The snowmobile roared beneath them and she clung to Mr Perron’s waist. He pointed off to the right; he was heading for the lake. She nodded, ducking behind him against the wind.
The lake was where people in Taloka went to skidoo. Sometimes they played hockey, too – high schoolers who thought they were Lanny McDonald, or some other Maple Leaf hotshot. It was frozen solid now, but every winter there were accidents when people tried the ice too early. Last year the brother of a kid in her class had drowned.
They sped along the shoulder of the road, keeping clear of the mounds of snow pushed up by the ploughs, then veered off onto the trail that led to the lake. She imagined her parents finding the note and her pulse surged.
Then she remembered her dad dancing, and her mother sunk deep in the couch. They wouldn’t even know she was gone.
The snowmobile bumped down towards the lake’s edge. Her cheeks were tight and cold above her scarf, and she knew she’d have frostbite later – a white line of frozen flesh that would make her mother sigh. It had happened before. No big deal.
Mr Perron turned and gestured, index finger circling in the air. A lap of the lake. Lana shuddered as she gave a thumbs up.
The moonlight was bright on the snow, and the lake shone like a pearl. They lurched down the incline and onto the flat of the lake where they slowed, then stopped, the snowmobile still grumbling.
‘You alright there?’
Mr Perron didn’t have kids, and she wondered why. He made her feel important. Like she mattered.
‘Yep!’ she yelled back over the idling motor. Her teeth chattered under the scarf.
‘Okay then.’ He pressed the throttle and they moved off smoothly, heading to the left in a gentle arc.
The moon hung above the lake, a silvery sun in the grey evening sky. It was unnaturally light, a strange day-night that reminded her of a dream. Beneath their bodies, the machine screamed across the vast whiteness and curved to hug the tree-dotted shore.
Their track unrolled behind them – a long, glistening line that followed them like a friend. Lana tipped her head back to scan the sky, her heart huge with happiness, holding Mr Perron and flying through the night.
She blinked back tears as they careened to the right, completing the loop. They slowed, then rose up the shore and back onto the trail, where he paused.
‘How was that?’ His voice was uneven.
‘It was cool. Really cool.’
‘Good. Now let’s get you home.’ They charged towards the road, rocking and bumping over the snow.
It was darker now – the moon covered by cloud. Mr Perron hunched forward, and she had to lean down to keep close. Just before the road, a streak of movement caught her eye. A snowshoe hare, fat and white, jumped across the trail. Mr Perron flinched, turning the handlebars. The hare stopped and seemed to look right at Lana before bounding away.
They veered crazily off the path. The snowmobile wobbled and slipped. Mr Perron yelled something – she could feel the vibrations in his ribs – then they went over, sliding and turning. Her whole world spun and rolled and she couldn’t tell which way was up. She screamed, ‘Stop! Stop!’
With a jolt and a crack they were still.
The skidoo sat crumpled against a tree. Mr Perron lay curled on the far side of the trunk, hands in his lap and his neck bent strangely low.
She’d been flung free, too, though her leg hurt where she’d been dragged beneath the machine. The sound of her own breathing filled her ears, quick and rasping. She crawled towards Mr Perron. Partway there, a clod of snow fell from a branch down the back of her parka. She began to shake.
‘Mr Perron!’ Lana took his hand, bending close. His eyes were shut, and he was still.
‘Hey! Wake up!’ She tugged his wrist, looking about. The darkness was dense around her. The snowmobile’s headlight still burned, facing the lake.
‘M-Mister Per-ron.’ She swiped at her eyes with a glove, water icing her lashes.
He didn’t move.
She pushed herself to stand, her whole body quaking. Up the hill, a truck swept past, air brakes engaging with a hiss as it curved around the bend.
She stumbled toward the road. Her feet were like bricks and her left leg ached. Reaching the highway, she trailed her hand along the ploughed-up mounds for guidance. Snow coated her scarf; the wool was wet across her mouth. It was taking so long to get back, and she couldn’t stop crying.
A set of headlights approached through the night and she waved wildly. The vehicle came level, the passenger door opened, and her mother scrambled out of the Ford Falcon. ‘Lana! Oh my god! Are you okay?’
She sobbed into her mom’s camel-hair coat.
‘Come on, let’s get you in the car.’
‘But Mr Perron…’
‘Where is he? What’s happened?’
Lana pointed to the lake, unable to speak. Her mother’s face changed.
‘Okay. Hop in. We’ll look after this.’
Her dad jumped out, and Lana eased herself into the station wagon, her leg throbbing, shutting the door to keep in the warmth. Outside, her parents yelled at each other back and forth. Finally her mom jumped into the driver’s seat, and her dad grabbed a torch then disappeared. Her mother drove back to the Perrons’ house, hands rigid on the wheel.
An ambulance shrieked out to the lake, its siren raising goosebumps down Lana’s arms. Not long after, her father trudged into the dining room where the last guests toyed with limp crackers. He still wore his boots and his hair was wild. He stopped before Mrs Perron and shook his head.
She raised her hands to her mouth. ‘No. No.’
‘I’m so sorry Yvette.
Her face twisted and she turned away. ‘Oh goddamn it. Goddamn that stupid man!’
Mr Kondos walked toward her but she stepped back, pointing. ‘Don’t touch me!’
Lana’s mom sat Mrs Perron on the couch, rubbing her back as she crumpled forward. The others spoke in low voices.
Although she was warm, Lana shivered in her chair. Her father gathered some short fat glasses, and poured golden-brown drinks. Mr Kondos stared at Mrs Perron. Lana glanced over too, but instead of her teacher she saw Mr Perron, head bowed, folded in the snow.
Her stomach rolled, and her mouth watered like it always did before she puked. She slid off her chair and hurried down the hall, past the shadowed guest room and into the bathroom, bright with flowered wallpaper.
She clutched the toilet, her knees wobbly on the tiles and the smell of Lysol in her throat. Sweat prickled across her lip. She retched and gagged, but nothing came up. Pulling a wad of toilet paper, she wiped her mouth and flushed.
As she washed her hands, she heard her teacher begin to weep, the cries swirling down the hall and rising to a howl. Lana’s hands froze on the plush peach hand towel. She breathed slowly through her nose.
‘Here you are. Are you alright?’ Her father stroked the side of her cheek, just a wisp of touch. She reached out to him, pulling closer, until her head pressed hard against his chest.
‘It’s okay honey. You’re okay.’
In the mirror she saw the pale lines of frostbite etched just below her eyes.